Graphic Novel Review: ‘Any Empire’ by Nate Powell

Any EmpireAny Empire by Nate Powell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Art: Powell is fantastic with inks. I was introduced to his work in Swallow Me Whole, and the combination of tight lines (outlines and shading) interspersed with large areas of black and white is brilliant. He’s also good at little subtleties; for instance, this one contains stylized panels from G.I. Joe and the lady in them is posed so her breasts and bum are simultaneously visible, even when this requires her torso to be elongated beyond what’s normal or comfortable. Considering that no one else is blatantly sexualized (and this is a story that includes implied sex), I’m guessing it’s a little spot of commentary.

Overall, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, so the facial expressions and body language have to be reasonably precise, which they are. The one thing I had some trouble with was that it switches between the past and present (technically not this present, it’s somewhat of an alternate reality), and unlike manga the black borders don’t consistently mean one or the other. A reread cleared this up nicely, though. The chronology in the two halves isn’t totally consistent, either—the adults do have a couple of flashbacks to earlier adult times, instead of skipping completely back to childhood—but again, a reread will fix it.

Like ‘Swallow Me Whole’ there are some elements of magic realism, in part related to the switch between past and present, but you’ll have to read the the book to see where that is.

I would have preferred larger lettering, but it’s easy to read. I’m guessing a font from handwriting—all lowercase, anyway.

Story: The blurbs for this graphic novel are a bit ambitious. You could probably read that far into what’s there, but overall this is pretty sparing with words, which makes conveying such complex thematic elements very challenging. The dialogue does more to round out the characters than drive the story, and while it goes well with his visuals, I don’t think the themes succeed completely. (I read this twice, I suppose I could keep reading it to tease out every nuance, but I don’t think that should be a requisite. But read it twice for sure.)

It does, though, give a good sense of how kids see war when it’s glamorized for them. I mean, it’s less so the case now what with journalists bringing back the less positive images (some of which we see here; Abu Ghraib, anyone?) but the generation before me did grow up on G.I. Joe and all that.

Ignoring the blurbs, what story is more easily found is well done. The characters have personalities, and as with ‘Swallow Me Whole’ there’s a strong sense of uncertainty—they aren’t 100% confident in their decisions, but that’s life. It does make the determination of the girl come across more strongly as a comparison, and then some of the choices (key word) at the end.

The childhood parts are about mid- to late-eighties, with high school graduation being 1996. The setting is the South. Based on the author bio, I’m assuming this is semi-autobiographical. There are certainly elements that would resonate more strongly with people currently in their 30s-40s; as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, G.I. Joe, as well as having parents who served in Vietnam, and then having toy soldiers and playing at war and all that. Obviously, I didn’t find the lack of familiarity insurmountable. I think it would more so be a nice extra.

Anyway, I want to dig up some of Powell’s work where the writing was handled by someone else. I’m curious to see how he balances imagery with increased amounts of textual background (if that happens at all).

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2 thoughts on “Graphic Novel Review: ‘Any Empire’ by Nate Powell

  1. He’s got a few hi-profile projects where he’s strictly on art-duties: sweet-tooth #34 i think? and also “silence of our friends” and now “march”. both are depictions of historica, non-fiction events from the civil rights era (riots, de-segregation marches). the art is beautiful.

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